Great Jerks

There are good guys and there are bad guys and there are ambiguous guys. And then there are characters who function as jerks or bullies or losers. And some of them are so good at what they do, they become lovable. It isn't that they are mean--I've written elsewhere about my dislike of mean characters--it is that these characters perform a necessary function of unlikability, and they manage to embodied or convey unlikableness in a frankly likable way. They become whole and believable personalities.

1. Hodges from CSI

I love Hodges. He is nerdier than Greg, odder than Grissom. He toadies. He pushes people's buttons (not always on purpose). And he is great at what he is. One of my favorite episodes is when he smells a dead guy (or part of a dead guy) and is defensively embarassed when Grissom finds out. "You think that's gross, huh?" he says. "No," Grissom replies, "that's the first time you've impressed me," and Hodges is so surprised, he shuts up. It illustrates the quirky dynamic that is at the heart of CSI:LV.

2. Jayne from Firefly

He comes off as mean, stupid bully guy, but the thing I like about Jayne is that he remains himself. He doesn't suddenly morph into understanding guy. His apparent meanness isn't a coverup for a really sweet individual (which would make the meanness actually more icky). He is fully himself. He isn't a hero and certainly doesn't want to be mistaken for one. There's a kind of honesty about him except that Jayne would eschew even that praise. Consequently, Mal appears an even better captain for willingly taking Jayne aboard for the sake of his abilities (the episode where Mal remembers collecting his crew is one of my favorites).

3. Chase from House

I've written about Chase here.

4. Cordelia (Buffy Cordelia)

Cordelia was slated for a heroine role almost from the beginning, but she was played, at the very beginning, as the snotty, shallow individual who cuts down the heroine. However, even in the beginning Cordelia had certain attributes that ended up making her a heroine later. In "Earshot," for example, while everyone else is freaking out about what Buffy might overhear, good old Cordelia is saying exactly what she thinks. I'm bored--Can I leave now? "I'm bored. Can I leave now?" I also think Whedon & crew did something psychologically right about Cordelia. The snotty girl is so often cut down to size in teen shows but in Buffy/Angel, Cordelia's High School snottiness is (I think correctly) perceived as an adult strength. One of my favorite early episodes of Angel is when Cordelia gets her new apartment. The ghost woman is criticizing her, cutting her down, mocking her. "Bitch," she finally says to which Cordelia replies, "That's right. I am." She was the bitchiest, meanest, snottiest girl at Sunnydale High and she's going to let someone else push her around? I love that. I think that is the essence of Cordelia-ism.

5. The Thenardiers on Les Miserables

The singing version. First of all, they have great songs, but I also think it is interesting that they are not only not punished at the end, they thrive. Apparently, Hugo's Christianity was of the "it'll come out in the wash" variety. And I think that letting the Thenardiers thrive was, unfortunately but necessarily, truthful to reality.

6. Mr. Collins from Pride & Prejudice

There's only one Bingley (think Superman). There's really only two or three Darcys (think Angel and House). There's a few kinds of Wickham (think Hugh Grant in most roles). There are numerous Collinses. My personal favorite is the A & E version; he is so very pompous and so very self-confident for all the wrong reasons and so very off-putting and so very clueless. And so very, very funny.

7. Charles Grodin from Heaven Can Wait

Technically, he is a bad guy, but he is incredibly hilarious. Not that bad guys can't be funny (think Alan Rickman from Robin Hood) but Grodin's type of sarcastic and amoral badness makes him a likable jerk. He has one of those faces where he lifts an eyebrow and you just start laughing. He does it again, and you can't stop. Why? Why is that so funny? But it is.

8. Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Granted, Quark borderlined bad/ambiguous guy at the beginning of the series but I think eventually he ended up as supposedly unlikable guy who yet manages to keep, barely, on the right side of the law. He was no Dukat and he wasn't really even like Garak. He was just Quark: not nice, not bad, not good, not ambiguous (he ended up ambiguous; however, unlike Spike or Garak or, say, Faith, Quark didn't set out to be ambiguous. He thinks he is acting morally according to his lights.) Shimerman played it perfectly (he played Principal Snider perfectly as well): nicely nuanced performances that never crossed the line either into totally unlikable meanness or into reformed gushy sentimentalism.

9. Wesley from Buffy/early Angel

I just rewatched some early Angel, and I didn't appreciate how funny Wesley was at the beginning of that show (and the end of Buffy). He was still playing incompetent, pompous guy ("I'm a rogue demon hunter!" "What's a rogue demon?"). Denisof has great comedic talents that were kind of wasted later on. I don't hold it against Whedon for turning him into brooding, dark guy at the end of Angel (and the episode where he shoots the robot version of his father is one of my favorites), but I recommend that fans go back and watch the Angel episode where Denisof and Boreanaz dance ("She" First Season). And then watch the scene again. And again. And again . . .

10. Michael Culver as Prior Robert in Brother Cadfael Mysteries

He plays the priest who is always giving Cadfael a hard time. Culver is one of those (mostly) bald sexy guys with a beautiful voice. As Prior Robert, he manages to exert a self-righteous authority that makes you dislike him without actually hating him. In the books, Cadfael says that he has learned to tolerate the Prior Roberts of this world and even to admire them for their basic toughness, despite the fact that in terms of mental makeup and ambition, Cadfael is Prior Robert's dead opposite. Culver manages to portray a character that fits that description surprisingly well. (I also like Prior Robert's toady, Jerome--played by Julian Firth--mostly for his voice. I can recognize it just about anywhere.)

The important thing with these jerks is that you want to watch them. Somehow the cleverness of their written characters or the self-sufficiency of their acting or the believability of their parts makes you want to watch them again and again, and you do.

CATEGORY: TV

2 comments:

Cherndawg said...

There are a lot of great love-to-hate characters. I love Jayne as well (jaynetown may be one of the best TV episodes of anything ever made), and Spike definitely fits in this catagoy. Also- Sawyer from LOST. The show can be tough o follow because you have to watch every episode, but his character is phenominal.

Eugene said...

Bingo on Hodges. I love the way he obvious thinks of himself as the "next Grissom" (nobody else does). This is a interesting thesis. I think you could argue that no television series can be really great without a great jerk. This is a basic problem with CSI: Miami: all the cool in the world can't make up for a the lack of a topnotch jerk. It was also a big problem with Star Trek/TNG (so Wesley ended up the designated jerk). It's why MASH couldn't have lasted as long as it did with just Burns. It needed a first-class jerk like Winchester to go the distance.